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Lakers vs. Suns Game 4 Preview: When will the threes start to fall?

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The Lakers have managed to take a 2-1 lead over the Suns, and will be even more dangerous if they ever start hitting threes.

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NBA: Playoffs-Phoenix Suns at Los Angeles Lakers Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

If the scoreboard hadn’t been visible when Wesley Matthews hit his second three in a row in the fourth quarter of Game 3 against the Suns, one would have been forgiven for thinking his jumper had just iced an NBA Finals game — or at least a series-clinching victory — based on the way the rest of the Lakers celebrated.

Starting center Andre Drummond and two-way player Devontae Cacok mimicked Matthews’ trademark bow and arrow celebration in unison. Talen Horton-Tucker ran onto the court to hug the veteran shooting guard who took his spot in the rotation as the Suns called timeout to stop the bleeding. Matthews may have only given the Lakers a 15-point lead to help ice their first series lead of the NBA playoffs, but he was also offering a glimpse of how dangerous this Lakers team could be if their shots ever start to fall consistently.

Even if he was less excited about the scoring than his teammates were.

“Obviously anytime you contribute to the team on the offensive end, especially when we’re struggling from the 3-point line, it feels good,” Matthews said after the team’s practice on Saturday. “But I’m not gonna throw a parade or celebration, because my mentality is that those are supposed to go in. So me? I didn’t do anything other than what I’m supposed to.”

Matthews’ laser-focus on the end goal rather than a fun moment along the way is unsurprising from a player who is so desperate for a ring this year that he couldn’t bear to let himself watch his teammates raise their banner from last season because he felt he hadn’t earned that moment himself. But his teammates can be forgiven for reacting like they’d never seen someone hit a three before. After all, long-distance success has been pretty rare for the Lakers this season, and it has become even more sporadic to start the 2021 playoffs.

The Lakers were not a good 3-point shooting team in the regular season. Their 35.4% ranked 21st out of the 30 teams in the NBA, and has fallen even further off a cliff over their first three playoff games. LeBron James, Dennis Schröder and Marc Gasol are shooting a combined 15-36 (41.6%) from deep. Every other Laker is a combined 9-51 (17.6%). As of this story publishing, the only team shooting worse from deep than the Lakers (27.6%) is the Washington Wizards (23.8%).

But the Wizards shooting badly isn’t surprising for a team trailing 2-0 in the first round. What is shocking is that the Lakers have been able to take a 2-1 series lead over the Suns despite shooting the ball like eight-year-olds at their first basketball practice.

They’ve done so with defense. The Suns were the seventh-best offense in the NBA this year, scoring 116.3 points per 100 possessions, and were even hotter over their final 15 games before the playoffs, scoring 120.3 (the second-best mark in the league over that time). Chris Paul being a shell of himself has surely contributed to them falling off against the Lakers, but through three games, L.A. has been more stifling than the Arizona climate, holding Phoenix to 104.6 points per 100 possessions, the third-worst mark of any team in the playoffs, ahead of only the New York Knicks (104.2) and the recently swept Miami Heat (95.4).

That level of defense will be enough to help the Lakers win games no matter how they’re shooting, but it also offers promise that they can blow the doors off of teams if their shot ever does come around. Matthews is confident that will happen eventually. When I asked him after practice what the team can do to turn things around in that department, he mentioned watching film and getting up individual shots before making sure to emphasize what isn’t the answer.

“It’s not panicking. That’s the biggest thing. That’s for y’all to do. For us, we can’t panic,” Matthews said. “We know that we’ve played basketball for however many years. Everybody has played basketball, we’ve taken however many thousands, hundreds of thousands of millions of shots, of repetitions. It’s not time for us to panic. We don’t crunch numbers and do all that stuff. We lace our shoes up and we get to work.”

Vogel echoed Matthews’ message, saying that it’s essentially been what he and the rest of his coaching staff have been preaching to the Lakers.

“You have to shoot without hesitation, without a conscience, and the bigger picture is you have to continue to focus on shot quality,” Vogel said. “That’s what we’re really putting our focus on, is that if we execute better, the quality of shots goes up, and the shots will fall. We believe in the numbers. We believe in our shooters that we have here.”

That strategy worked for the Lakers last season, when they started off their championship run by shooting 15.6% from three in their first game of the first-round against Portland. That team went on to only lose one game in the entire playoffs when they shot better than 30% from three, which isn’t even a good percentage. They just needed to be not actively bad to win games.

And with the level of defense this team is playing so far, perhaps their recipe will be similar. After all, they shot 25% from three in Game 3 and still almost blew the Suns out. Matthews, one of the better 3-and-D role players of the last decade, also knows that there is a lot more to basketball than shooting.

“Honestly? If we’re going to be in a shooting slump, I’d rather be in a shooting slump and be winning. There’s so many ways to impact the game, and the defensive end is definitely the most important way,” Matthews said. “Shooting makes the game easier, but if we’re holding a team like that to 99, under 100 points, we’re giving ourselves a chance to get hot.”

The Lakers are also prioritizing process over results on offense, and they know they have some room to grow in that department.

“If we pass better, read better, space better, screen better and all those types of things, we’ll just generate higher quality looks,” Vogel said. “We believe it will come around.”

When and if it does, the threes they do make won’t seem so anomalous, but the Lakers will have a lot more leads for the bench to raucously celebrate.

Notes and Updates

  • The Lakers are listing Anthony Davis (knee sprain) and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (knee contusion) as questionable for Game 4, but Davis has already said that if it’s up to him, he’s playing.
  • The latest update from the Suns’ side of things is that Chris Paul did not practice as the team tries to get him closer to healthy:

The Lakers and Suns will tip-off Game 4 at 12:30 p.m. PT on Sunday in Staples Center. The game will be televised exclusively on ABC, and we’ll see if the Lakers are more ready for this early start than they were last week.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.